Charles Leale

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Charles Leale
Charles Leale - Brady-Handy.jpg
Charles Leale in Union Uniform
Charles Augustus Leale

(1842-03-26)March 26, 1842
New York City, New York
DiedJune 13, 1932(1932-06-13) (aged 90)
Manhattan, New York
Occupationphysician, surgeon
Charles Leale
Charles Leale

Charles Augustus Leale (March 26, 1842 – June 13, 1932) was a surgeon in the Union Army during the American Civil War.[1] He was the first doctor to arrive at the presidential box at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865 after John Wilkes Booth fatally shot President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head with a Philadelphia Deringer pistol. His quick efforts temporarily prolonged President Lincoln's life, which allowed Lincoln to live until the next morning. Charles Leale continued to serve in the army until 1866. He then returned to his home town of New York City where he established a successful private practice and became involved in charitable medical care. One of the last surviving witnesses to Lincoln's death, Dr. Charles A. Leale died in 1932 at the age of 90.

Early life[edit]

Dr. Leale was born in New York City March 26, 1842, the son of Captain William P. and Anna Maria Burr Leale. He was a grandson of Captain Richard Burr, who, in 1746 sent a cargo of corn to famine-stricken Ireland. Leale began his medical studies at 18, the private pupil of Dr. Austin Flint, Sr., in diseases of the heart and lungs, and of Dr. Frank H. Hamilton in gunshot wounds and surgery. He also studied at various clinics and served a full term as medical cadet in the United States Army.[2]

Assassination of Lincoln[edit]

In April 1865, Leale was a 23-year-old surgeon in charge of the Wounded Commissioned Officers' Ward at the United States Army General Hospital in Armory Square, Washington, DC.[3] Just six weeks earlier, he'd graduated in medicine from Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York City.

A few days before Lincoln's assassination, Leale took a brief break from his exhausting job and took a walk down Pennsylvania Avenue for some fresh air. He noticed a crowd of people heading towards the White House. He discovered Lincoln giving his last public address to the public and was intrigued by the president's facial features. Soon after, Leale learned that Lincoln was going to Ford's Theatre to see the play Our American Cousin. "After completing his duties...Leale changed to civilian clothes and rushed to the Theater, not to see the play, but to study President Lincoln's face and facial expressions."[4] He asked for a seat in the orchestra so he would have an unhindered view, but arrived late and was given a seat in the dress circle, which was near the front, same side and 40 feet away from the president's box.

There was an interruption in the play when Lincoln arrived. The orchestra played "Hail to the Chief" and the audience gave a standing ovation. Leale could see the full face of the president as he stood only a few aisles behind Leale. What was to be a brief observation of the president's face would turn into nine hours of close doctoring for Charles Leale.

John Wilkes Booth jumped down from the presidential box to the stage. Leale stated that Booth "ran to the opposite side of the stage, flourishing in his hand a drawn dagger and vanishing behind the scene." [5] Leale's statement of Booth running across the stage supports of Michael Kauffman's idea in "American Brutus," that Booth did not break his leg from the fall from the banister, but rather from a fall off his horse as he fled.[6]

Leale, seeing this, immediately rushed to the president's box. When he arrived, he saw Lincoln slumped in his armchair supported by Mary Todd Lincoln, who was weeping frantically. Leale received permission to take charge. He found the President unresponsive, barely breathing and with no detectable pulse: "His eyes were closed and he was in a profoundly comatose condition, while his breathing was intermittent and exceedingly stertorous."[7] He laid the president down on the floor and initially thinking that Lincoln had been stabbed in the shoulder, searched for wounds. Finding none, he further detected that Lincoln's eyes were dilated and finally found "a large clot of blood about one inch below the superior curved line and an inch and a half to the left of the median line of the occipital bone in the back of the skull"[8] that showed that he had been shot. Leale attempted to remove the bullet, but the bullet was too deep in his head and instead Leale dislodged a clot of blood in the wound. Consequently, Lincoln's breathing improved.[9]:121–22 Leale determined that if he continued to release more blood clots at a specific time, Lincoln would breathe more naturally. He allowed actress Laura Keene to cradle the president's head in her lap. His assessment of the dire condition of the president ("his wound is mortal; it is impossible for him to recover") was announced to the entire country.

Army surgeon Dr. Charles S. Taft and Dr. Albert F. A. King of Washington then joined Leale and conceded that Lincoln would not survive a carriage ride back to the White House. Leale ordered that Lincoln be moved to the Petersen House across the street so that he could rest in comfort. Leale gave control over the president to the Lincoln family physician, Robert K. Stone, and the commander of the Armory Square Hospital, D. W. Bliss. Lincoln was placed on a bed diagonally, for his 6'4" body was too long to fit lengthwise. He remained in a coma for approximately nine hours before passing away at 7:22 the next morning. Lincoln never regained consciousness.

For most of the night, Leale held the comatose president's hand with a firm grip, "to let him know that he was in touch with humanity and had a friend."[10] As he died his breathing grew quieter, his face more calm.[11] According to some accounts, at his last drawn breath, on the morning after the assassination, he smiled broadly and then expired.[12][13][14][15][16] Historians, most notably author Lee Davis have emphasized Lincoln's peaceful appearance when and after he died: "It was the first time in four years, probably, that a peaceful expression crossed his face."[17] Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Lincoln Administration, Maunsell Bradhurst Field wrote, "I had never seen upon the President's face an expression more genial and pleasing."[14][18] The President's secretary, John Hay, saw "a look of unspeakable peace came upon his worn features".[19]

Though some experts have disagreed,[20] Dr. Leale's treatment of Lincoln has been considered good for its time.[21] He was honored for his efforts to save the president by being allowed to participate in various capacities during the funeral ceremonies.[22]

Later life[edit]

Although Leale submitted a report in 1867 to Representative Benjamin F. Butler's House commission investigating the assassination, Leale's account of Lincoln's death was not publicly revealed until the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth in 1909.[23] In that year Leale spoke on "Lincoln's Last Hour" to the New York commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States.[24] His 1865 written report to the Surgeon General of the United States was thought lost until 2008, when a 22-page photocopy was found in the Georgetown University Library and published.[25]

Seemingly written just hours after the assassination, a second copy was found in the National Archives in June 2012.[26][27][28]

After his discharge he went to Europe, where he studied the Asiatic Cholera. On September 3, 1867, he married Rebecca Medwin Copcutt, a daughter of Yonkers, New York, industrialist John Copcutt (1805–1895) at the historic John Copcutt Mansion.[29] Until his retirement in 1928, Dr. Leale maintained a continuous interest in philanthropic, medical, and scientific projects. Leale was one of the last surviving attendees of Lincoln's assassination upon his death in 1932 at the age of 90. He was survived by five children, a sixth child, daughter Annie Leale, having died in 1915. Rebecca Copcutt Leale died in 1923. He was a member of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest, where funeral services were held on June 15, 1932.[30] Burial followed in Oakland Cemetery.

The cuff of the shirt that Leale wore the night of the assassination, stained with Lincoln's blood, was later donated by his granddaughter to the National Museum of American History.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schroeder-Lein, Glenna R. (28 January 2015). "The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine". Routledge. Retrieved 25 October 2017 – via Google Books.
  2. ^ THE NEW YORK TIMES, June 14, 1932, Obituary of Dr. Charles A. Leale.
  3. ^ Leale, Charles. Lincoln's Last Hours. 1909. Project Gutenberg
  4. ^ Helen Leale Harper, "Dr. Charles A Leale: First Surgeon to Reach the Assassinated President Lincoln," September 28, 2009 Yonkers Historical Society Newsletter Article Archived 2012-02-27 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ CNN, By Dugald McConnell and Brian Todd,. "Newly discovered document sheds light on Lincoln's last hours - CNN". Retrieved 25 October 2017.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  6. ^ American Brutus, Michael Kauffman
  7. ^ "Report of first doctor to reach shot Lincoln found".
  8. ^ Richard A. R. Fraser, "How Did Lincoln Die?," American Heritage Magazine February/March 1995 "How Did Lincoln Die?"
  9. ^ Steers, Edward. Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. University Press of Kentucky, 2001. ISBN 978-0-8131-9151-5
  10. ^ Steers. Blood on the Moon. p. 14.
  11. ^ Tarbell, Ida Minerva (1920). The Life of Abraham Lincoln. 4. p. 40.
  12. ^ Fox, Richard (2015). Lincoln's Body: A Cultural History. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393247244.
  13. ^ Smith, Adam (8 July 2015). "With a smile on his face" – via content.The Times Literary
  14. ^ a b "Now He Belongs to the Ages - BackStory with the American History Guys". Abraham Lincoln died, according to press reports, with a smile on his face. “I had never seen upon the president's face an expression more genial and pleasings,” wrote a New York Times reporter.
  15. ^ Abel, E. Lawrence (2015). A Finger in Lincoln's Brain: What Modern Science Reveals about Lincoln, His Assassination, and Its Aftermath. ABC-CLIO. Chapter 14.
  16. ^ "President Lincoln's Thoughts on April 14, 1865". When he finally gave up the struggle for life at 7:22 A.M., his face was fixed in a smile, according to one bedside witness, treasury official, a smile that seemed almost an effort of life. Lincoln has passed on smoothly and contentedly, his facial expression suggesting that inner peace that prevailed as his final state of mind.
  17. ^ Assassinations That Changed The World, History Channel
  18. ^ "OUR GREAT LOSS; The Assassination of President Lincoln.DETAILS OF THE FEARFUL CRIME.Closing Moments and Death of the President.Probable Recovery of Secretary Seward. Rumors of the Arrest of the Assassins.The Funeral of President Lincoln to Take Place Next Wednesday.Expressions of Deep Sorrow Through-out the Land. OFFICIAL DISPATCHES. THE ASSASSINATION. Further Details of the Murder Narrow Recape of Secretary Stanton Measures Taken is Prevent the Escape of the Assassin of the President. LAST MOMENTS OF THE PRESIDENT. Interesting Letter from Maunsell B. Field Esq. THE GREAT CALAMITY". The New York Times. 1865-04-17. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-04-12.
  19. ^ Hay, John (1915). The Life and Letters of John Hay Volume 1 (quote's original source is Hay's diary which is quoted in "Abraham Lincoln: A History", Volume 10, Page 292 by John G. Nicolay and John Hay). Houghton Mifflin Company.
  20. ^ Richard A. R. Fraser, MD (February–March 1995). "How Did Lincoln Die?". American Heritage. 46 (1).
  21. ^ Stiehm, Jamie (May 18, 2007). "Modern medicine may have saved Lincoln". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 2012-07-19.
  22. ^ Helen Leale Harper Jr. (Spring 1995). "Dr. Charles A. Leale: First Surgeon to Reach the Assassinated President Lincoln". YHS Newsletter. Yonkers Historical Society. Archived from the original on 2012-02-27. Retrieved 2012-07-19.
  23. ^ Charles A. Leale to Benjamin F. Butler, July 20th, 1867, Benjamin Butler Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., box 43
  24. ^ Charles A. Leale, Lincoln's Last Hours: Address Delivered Before the Commandery of the State of New York Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (New York: Privately published, 1909) Project Gutenberg (accessed July 27, 2012)
  25. ^ Sotos, JG (2008). The Physical Lincoln Sourcebook. Mount Vernon, VA: Mt. Vernon Book Systems. ISBN 978-0-9818193-3-4.
  26. ^
  27. ^ ""Is there a surgeon in the house?!" Papers of Abraham Lincoln researcher discovers report of Dr. Charles A. Leale, first physician to reach Lincoln at Ford's Theatre" (PDF). Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. 5 June 2012. Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 June 2012. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  28. ^ Papaioannou, Helena (6 June 2012). "All Things Considered". National Public Radio (Interview). Interviewed by Robert Siegel. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  29. ^ Neil G. Larson (July 1985). "National Register of Historic Places Registration: John Copcutt Mansion". New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Retrieved 2010-12-24.
  30. ^ THE NEW YORK TIMES, June 14, 1932, Obituary of Dr. Charles A. Leale.
  31. ^ "Coffee cups, chairs, and jackets: Presidential last moments preserved". National Museum of American History. Retrieved 25 October 2017.

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